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May 6, 2023
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The month of May brings new layers of greenery and wildflowers
to our woodlands and the first blooms in our prairies.
WILDFLOWER FORECAST & HIGHLIGHTS to help you plan your outdoor adventures into Chicago’s Woodlands:
If April was warm, then the bluebells are now gone. If it was cold, then you may still have a chance to experience their spectacular shows. And this is also a time when the gorgeous large-flowered trillium performs. According to my database, the odds are that you missed the bluebell display but you may still catch the trillium. But nature isn’t about flowers. It’s about the experience. Explore and discover a preserve from the list below. Be open to nature’s unexpected gifts, whether it be a colorful, awe-inspiring bloom, the mysterious squeak of two rubbing trees mimicking the cry of a baby animal, or the life-affirming odor of skunk cabbage. All of these things will open up your life to a world of wonder and intrigue.
According to my database, the spectacular shows of Virginia Bluebell can reach peak bloom anywhere between April 2 and May 10, depending on the weather. The former was in 2012 when it was 85 degrees in April! The best blooms of Virginia Bluebells take place at O’Hara Woods, Pilcher Park, Messenger Woods, and sometimes Black Partridge Woods. The oceans of blue are proof that Chicago nature offers beauty that rivals the national parks. Experience the magnificence with your eyes, as well as your nose, as the scent of these azure flowers fills the air with a sweet fragrance that some people liken to Froot Loops cereal. Instead of listening to “some people,” I did a little experiment of my own. I took the cereal into the field and compared its scent to the flowers. See the bluebell photos below to learn what I found.
The stunning show of large-flowered trillium often corresponds to that of the bluebell, peaking just slightly after. These magnificent blossoms put on the best shows at Heron Rookery Trail (at Indiana Dunes National Park) and at the nearby J. Timothy Ritchie Preserve that’s owned by Shirley Hines Land Trust. These alabaster beauties also grow at Messenger Woods in Homer Glen, Meacham Grove in DuPage County, Harms Woods in Glenview, and Captain Daniel Wright Woods in Mettawa. And speaking of trillium, the elegant and ethereal prairie trillium also flowers in most of our woodlands.
This could also be a good week for wild geranium. Lucky for us, this pink flower with star-shaped foliage is a popular plant at all of our woodlands, including Black Partridge Woods, Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve, and Heron Rookery Trail. And often accompanying wild geranium in the woodland is the blue woodland phlox. Another phlox, called sand phlox, blooms in profusion at Pembroke Savanna alongside beautiful blossoms of birdfoot violet that also puts on shows at Shoe Factory Road Prairie and Chiwaukee Prairie. Sand phlox and woodland phlox make up our Plants of the Week.
The arrow-shaped flowers of shooting star is another May flower that makes an appearance atop the bluffs of Black Partridge Woods and in the prairies of Shoe Factory, Fermilab, and a little later at far-north Chiwaukee.
The earliest of our spring ephemerals may be gone or well into their blooming cycle. Many of them are colored white, including bloodroot, false rue anemone, rue anemone, spring cress, white trout lily, Dutchman’s breeches, cutleaf toothwort. Spring beauty is white with pink stripes, and sharp-lobed hepatica offers a beautiful palette ranging from white to lavender to purple.
The yellow blossoms of marsh marigold are probably gone or at the end of their bloom. They grow at Pilcher Park, Bluff Spring Fen, Trout Park, Captain Daniel Wright Woods, and at McClaughry Springs Woods in Palos Park (across the stream from the parking lot). Along the trails of our fine woodlands, check for yellow violet, bristly buttercup, yellow trout lily, buttery wood betony, and the shy drooping blossoms of large-flowered bellwort with beautiful colonies along the bluffs of Johnson’s Mound and Black Partridge Woods.
You should be able to see some some red in the form of the aforementioned prairie trillium. And as for the hues of blues, our common blue violet is exquisite when growing in a clump amidst its heart-shaped foliage, and woodland phlox is extremely fragrant.
And let’s not forget the textured lushness and shapely foliage that typify vernal season: wild leek, mayapple, skunk cabbage, and wild ginger. Wild leek is the one of the first plants to sprout, with a spray of swordlike leaves that make up a large percentage of the woodland greenery. You should now find mayapple with leaves that resemble an open umbrella, or a closed umbrella when they first sprout. Seek out the the sprawling leaves of skunk cabbage in the wet and muddy areas. Great displays can be found at Pilcher Park, Trout Park, Black Partridge Woods, and Bluff Spring Fen. And notice the heart-shaped leaves of wild ginger and its fuzzy burgundy flower hiding underneath. As an interesting history lesson, wild leek is the plant that gives Chicago its name. In the late 1600s, Potawatomi Indians who paddled the area rivers were commonly heard yelling “Chicagoua!” after catching a strong whiff of chicagoua, or wild leek, growing prolifically along the wooded banks. Wild leek is part of the onion family, hence the Chicago nickname, “The Big Onion.” NOTE: It is illegal to remove this plant, or any other plant from any preserve in the Chicago region.
Another wonderful show happens sometime between late April and mid-May at Pembroke Savanna, when birdfoot violet and sand phlox (one of our Plants of the Week) carpet the sandy floor of this black oak savanna. And, if you’re lucky, the breathtaking stout blue-eye grass might be aflower.
SPRING WILDFLOWER GETAWAYS AROUND CHICAGO:
I’ve ranked the preserves on this week’s list based on the information predicted by my one-of-a-kind propriety database of wildflowers blooming events, starting out with the best or “Go!” The “Go, if You’re in the Neighborhood” section is for sites that are worth visiting if you can’t make it to the top-rated preserves.
LIKELY, THIS WEEK’S BEST CHOICES (“GO!”):
O’Hara Woods Preserve in Romeoville: The spectacular display of Virginia bluebells may be past bloom, but it’s worth the trip to find out. This is the top preserve to visit when the Virginia bluebells reach their peak. The preserve was once called Dynamite Woods because the site stored explosives during World War II. You can still see the crumbling bunkers, but they’re being taken over by woodland plants. Around this time, the white flowers of cutleaf toothwort should be exploding like sparklers across the woodland floor. Walk towards the stream along the south end of the preserve, and you’ll find Dutchman’s breeches (that look like white, puffy overalls), spring beauty, skunk cabbage, mayapple, wild leek (Chicago’s namesake), and Virginia bluebells.
Pilcher Park Nature Center in Joliet: The spectacular show of Virginia bluebells often takes place around this time, though it can vary between April 2 and May 10. Begin your hike at the nature center where you may find a lush understory of spring wildflowers. Depending on when you visit, you may find sharp-lobed hepatica, cutleaf toothwort, false rue anemone, spring beauty, purple cress, and Dutchman’s breeches. Just as beautiful as the flowers are the fresh green leaves of wild leek, mayapple, and skunk cabbage. My favorite flower-of-the-moment is marsh marigold. Look for its yellow blossoms in the low, muddy areas of the site. You can find them near the nature center and around the trail after the bridge at this GPS coordinate: 41.532780, -88.016478. While you’re there (and just about anywhere with mud), look for the large fanning foliage of skunk cabbage. They’re hard to miss.
Black Partridge Woods in Lemont: A very nice show of Virginia bluebells often takes place around this time on the west side of the preserve, though it can vary between April 2 and May 10. When May comes, the woodland floor turns to an emerald dream covered in varied textures. And it gets even greener as the canopy above fills in. Thanks to wild ginger, which spreads to fill in the remaining empty spaces, you can hardly see the carpet of bronze leaves that dominated the scene just a few weeks earlier. Check deep underneath the leaves of wild ginger to find a fuzzy burgundy blossom. My favorite show at this preserve comes from the miniature forests of mayapple with their parasol-shaped leaves where you can now find a lonesome waxy white blossom hiding under the plants with two umbrellas. Exciting patches of acrobatic skunk cabbage leaves add to the whimsy. Wild leek‘s emerald swords put up a defense, and check for the star-like leaves of wild geranium that lends to the air of its heavenly pink flower around this time. Hidden amongst the jade hues, try to find the beautiful floating foliage of early meadow rue. Nice displays of woodland phlox often coincide with the flowering of wild geranium, and keep an eye out for the white and pink shooting star that bloom atop the bluff. If you find a good patch of phlox, pay attention to its fabulous scent. You may not even have to put nose to petal. The combination of woodland phlox, wild geranium, and shooting star is a wonderful sight. The shimmering highlights of white false rue anemone, rue anemone, and the pinkish spring beauty add to the springtime experience. And you may still find a smattering of prairie trillium and common blue violet. The spiraling buttery blooms of wood betony still be blooming, while the shy yellow blooms of large-flowered bellwort are likely still hanging on as they cling to the sides of the bluffs. Finally, see if you can still spot the shimmering petals of bloodroot, sharp-lobed hepatica, cutleaf toothwort, false rue anemone, spring beauty, and the occasional Dutchman’s breeches.
Heron Rookery Trail at Indiana Dunes National Park: The peak bloom of large-flowered trillium usually happens around this time, but it can be earlier or later depending on the whims of Mother Nature. The display of trillium is even better at the nearby J. Timothy Ritchie Preserve, which is owned by Shirley Hines Land Trust. Begin your stroll at the west parking lot. This woodland usually blooms earlier than most of our other preserves, but it can also be flooded by waters of the adjacent Little Calumet River. You may find sparkles of sharp-lobed hepatica, rue anemone and false rue anemone, Dutchman’s breeches, cutleaf toothwort, purple cress, bloodroot, and spring beauty. Look for patches of spear-like foliage that resemble green spotted trout. In there, you may find magnificent blooms of yellow trout lily. The otherworldly burgundy prairie trillium may also be flowering by now, and so might the bright-yellow bristly buttercup that love muddy woodlands. The lush, sprawling foliage of wild leek, mayapple, and wild ginger greatly enhance the springtime experience.
Messenger Woods in Homer Glen: The spectacular show of Virginia bluebells often takes place around this time, though it can vary between April 2 and May 10. And the peak bloom of large-flowered trillium usually coincides. This preserve exudes that green and luxuriant feeling of spring. Once spring takes hold, you’ll see a variety of blooming ephemerals amidst an emerald carpet often rich in a lacy false mermaid, mayapple, wild leek, and wild ginger. The most common blossoms that bloom in early spring are spring beauty, cutleaf toothwort, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, false rue anemone, white trout lily, and prairie trillium.
Johnson’s Mound Forest Preserve in Elburn: This intimate preserve is known for its ravines that sparkle white with dense white colonies of false rue anemone that flow across the braes. But you’ll also see many other plants as well, like cutleaf toothwort, Dutchman’s breeches. sharp-lobed hepatica, wild leek, mayapple, prairie trillium and common blue violet, and the sublime large-flowered bellwort that also grows in colonies. In late April or early May, look for drooping trillium and large-flowered trillium.
Pembroke Savanna in Hopkins Park: Sometime during late April to mid-May, the preserve puts on a beautiful show of blue and white, as carpets of sapphire birdfoot violet and sparkling sand phlox flow across the savanna. Don’t leave without bending down to enjoy the fragrance of these two jewels. You may also see the white of sand cress and starry false Solomon’s seal, and the golds of two-flowered Cynthia and buds of hoary puccoon. On your visit, you’ll notice mysterious sand mounds throughout the preserves. They are the handiwork of the plains pocket gopher. This rarely seen underground gopher excavates tunnels, and the extra sand has to go somewhere.
Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve in Monee: The preserve puts on a show with a rich variety of flowers throughout the month of April and into the second half of May. Look for the whitish pink expanse of spring beauty and myriad other wildflowers, including Dutchman’s breeches, false rue anemone, rue anemone, bloodroot, cutleaf toothwort, and surprisingly large colonies of flowering white trout lily. Adding to the color palette, you may see common blue violet, the golden hues of common yellow violet and bristly buttercup, and the strange and wonderful maroon tones of prairie trillium. Also, experience the jade hues and lush patterns of wild leek, mayapple, and wild ginger that add to the springtime mix. This preserve offers a nice display of Virginia bluebells, but not an overwhelming ocean like other preserves. Note that many spring flowers don’t open up at the break of day. They are awakened by the light. On cloudy days, they may remain enclosed safely in their buds. Fortunately, when closed, the Dutchman’s breeches cannot close and the white petals of toothwort are still visible and continue to twinkle.
Fermilab Natural Areas in Batavia: The woodland adjacent to the prairie is rich in springtime ephemerals. In late April or early May, the grand alabaster blossoms of large-flowered trillium steal the show amidst floating pink blossoms of wild geranium. Depending on the date of your visit, you’ll find many of the usual suspects in bloom: cutleaf toothwort, bloodroot, spring beauty, white trout lily, Dutchman’s breeches, false rue anemone, prairie trillium, and yellow colonies of bristly buttercup. And of course, these flowers will fall against a verdant backdrop of mayapple, wild ginger, and some wild leek. In the prairie, look for wood betony and shooting star.
Shoe Factory Road Prairie in Hoffman Estates: Though not officially a hill prairie, this gravelly prairie on a hill gets a lot of sun and also a lot of wildflowers. This may be a good time to see its first blooms of the season from hoary puccoon, wood betony, shooting star, birdfoot violet violet, and blue-eyed grass.
“GO, IF YOU’RE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD”:
Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin: Early in the spring, the transcendent yellow blossoms of marsh marigold should be flowering alongside fresh lush colonies of skunk cabbage. Soon after, you should also find miniature canopies of mayapple and a small number of spring ephemerals. And under the shade of the oaks in the savanna, you’ll find small patches of false rue anemone. For the best views of marsh marigold and skunk cabbage, visit Trout Park for dense populations of these plants in an intimate setting. The preserve features a trail that takes you up and down the bluffs that includes a wooden boardwalk that carefully guides you through sensitive wet areas. While on the boardwalk, look for Chicago’s only native evergreen tree, the northern white cedar. Atop the bluff, you’ll find other spring wildflowers.
Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook: Note that springtime starts a little later in the northern suburbs. Remain under the tree canopy to see the most spring ephemerals. Along your stroll, you should discover spring beauty, white trout lily, some bloodroot, cutleaf toothwort, mayapple, and others. You may now find the beautiful hemi-parasitic wood betony scattered in patches across the preserve, often in the sunnier spots, along with shooting star, prairie trillium, and golden Alexander in early bloom. Look for yellow water buttercup and miniature forests of mayapple that add to the whimsy. Park at the main parking lot for this preserve, located at Somme Woods, then follow the narrow trail and cross the street to Somme Prairie Grove.
NOTE: If you can’t make it to our showcase preserves, try McKinley Woods/Fredericks Grove in Channahon, Daniel Wright Woods in Mettawa, and Harms Woods in Glenview, and Oldfield Oaks in Darien, and J. Timothy Ritchie Preserve in Chesterton, Indiana. You’re bound to find some good stuff.
PLANT OF THE WEEK (Sand Phlox & Woodland Phlox):
Large-flowered Trillium can bloom between mid-April and early May:
False Rue Anemone:
Dutchman’s Breeches (or Dutchman’s Britches):
Stout Blue-Eyed Grass
If you find this website of Chicago nature information useful, please consider donating or purchasing my nationally-acclaimed book that celebrates all of the preserves featured on this website.